Marriage in the Tax Code, Part 10: Filing Statuses Arrive in 1948

wedding-rings-150300_1280I ended Part 9 by mentioning that filing statuses were created for the first time in 1948. The original statuses were:

  • Single
  • Married Filing Jointly
  • Married Filing Separately

There was still just one tax bracket, but the way in which married couples calculated their tax eliminated the disparity between common law and community property law.

The reform of 1948 gave couples two choices: they could file as married filing jointly, or as married filing separately. The tax calculation on a joint return applied community property concepts — for ALL married couples in all states.

A couple would figure their joint taxable income, divide by 2, find the tax on that amount, and then multiply by 2.

Example 1:

In 1949, John has income of $8,000 and Jane has income of $4,000. They live in a common-law state and file a joint return showing taxable income of $12,000. They calculate the tax on $6,000 of income (1/2 of $12,000), which is $1,360. They multiply $1,360 by two to arrive at their total tax, of $2,720.

If they file separate returns: The tax on $8,000 is $1,960 and the tax on $4,000 is $840, resulting in total tax owed of $2,800.

Example 2:

John and: Jane have the same amount of income but live in a community property state. The can file a joint return in the same manner as Example 6, and owe $2,720.

Or they could file separate returns with each showing income of $6,000. Either way, they arrive at $2,720. There is now equality between common law and community property couples (unless our couple in Example 6 would for some reason choose to file separate returns).

The effect was that filing a joint return became the most convenient, and cost-effective, way for married couples everywhere to file tax returns. And the inequality between community property law and common law was eliminated from the tax code.

But not surprisingly, the fixes made in 1948 opened up inequalities elsewhere, which Congress would try to patch in the years to come.